I have been in Hyderabad for quite some time. As I don’t
earn a big salary, I cannot afford to visit Calcutta as often as I would want to. That
makes me rather sad. Sometimes two or three years go by before I can afford a
trip. All my relatives and friends live in Calcutta. So if I can manage any work related
trip there, I feel really happy.
Thus, I had been deprived of Calcutta for last three years. I could not
even manage an office tour to satisfy my family. Suddenly one day I received a
telegram from my cousin Binoy. I am at heart still a middle-class Bengali. The
word ‘telegram’ always warns us of some bad news. I
live so far away, and many of my friends and relatives are getting old. Perhaps
some disaster happened to someone.
Binoy’s telegram did carry bad news. He had
written, “Vishnu uncle is dying. He wants to see you one last time.”
This was really hard news for me. Vishnu uncle was
not my blood relative but something even closer than that. In 1963-64, when I
was sixteen or seventeen, I had just left home in Bangladesh
and come to Calcutta
for the first time to continue my studies. I had finished my school final exam
from Dhaka Board. My poor parents had hoped that if I could get a college
degree somehow, I could find a job that would help me support the rest of the
family. In Calcutta,
I arrived first at an uncle’s place, but that did not work out well. My uncle’s father in-law was staying with
them, and for some reason he hated me from the first sight. He used to make me
work even harder than the menial servants. Too, he had an additional obsession
of proving me a thief. His past
occupation in police force might have had something to do with this. We had
some fifteen to twenty bighas of farm land in Bangladesh. Whatever crop it
yielded twenty five to thirty years ago barely met our own needs, but uncle and
aunt always lamented for not having any claim on it, and uncle’s father-in-law
never missed a chance of blaming my father for this and calling him a cheat and
a scoundrel. Poor and helpless, I had to keep my mouth shut and tolerate
these unjust humiliations.
Vishnu uncle arrived during these days. He told
me to go stay with him. He also said that he had informed my parents about this.
Apparently my father had learnt about my condition and asked him to take care
of me. It seemed once Vishnu uncle had received shelter at my parent’s house
and my father had been fond of him since.
I stayed with Vishnu uncle for four or five
years at that time. Uncle was barely ten years older than me but vastly
different in nature. He was probably 27 or 28 then, just married, and had two
jobless brothers and a senile uncle as dependants. He worked at a foundry in
Taratala, did not earn much and then got saddled with me as another dependant.
Surely, it was tough on him, but I was vastly relieved.
In those four to five years, uncle and I became
very close. Uncle had an open heart and that rare ability to treat everyone
with equal justice. He was also extremely disciplined and organized. Looking
back now he almost seemed a bit obsessive. We were never intimate enough to
have long chats. In fact I was a bit intimidated by him but I also respected
him a lot. Later, when I was older, the intimidation was replaced by more
But this discipline and obsession for equal
treatment of all had caused problems in his personal life. Unfortunately this
happens often. It is rare to come across a great man. And most of them suffered
the injustices of ordinary people. One group tried to cheat him and the other
tried to restrict him from doing the just thing. This second group was usually
his close relatives, and they are the ones to hurt him the most.
Vishnu uncle’s wife, children and other
relatives were of totally different characters. Right from the beginning there
was trouble with his wife Ramola auntie. She was a shallow person, not
interested in domesticity. All she wanted was dressing up and having a good
time with her friends. The disorganized, chaotic home resulting from this was a
total anathema to my uncle’s disciplined nature. He just could not tolerate the
careless, unkempt, uninterested attitude of his wife and this often resulted in
tremendous fights. My simple aunt often did not even understand the main
reason. As usually happens in such families, the initial attraction was soon
lost and within a few years uncle became a cantankerous, nitpicky, obsessive
type of person.
When I arrived in Calcutta, I learned that Vishnu uncle was in hospital.
Binoy said that his kidneys had failed. The doctors had given up hope. I was
stunned at the thought of a strong life ebbing away so fast.
That very evening I went to see him. It was
difficult to recognize the change in him. He was a large man who now had shrunk
to almost nothing. His sad face had brightened up for a moment at my sight but
relapsed immediately. A hopeless, poor man. Yet, even
in those dire circumstances, there was an irritated look in his face, which
also kept others from coming too close.
“How are you, uncle?”
“Just surviving a few
How are you? Haven’t seen you for ages.” Uncle was
reclining in bed. I touched his feet respectfully for pranam.
Uncle trembled at the touch. I looked at him in
surprise but could not see any change.
Uncle’s two daughters and a son were also in the
room, but uncle was not talking to them at all. Suddenly he asked me, “You know
what is the biggest stupidity of man?”
I stared at him in silence. I was not sure how
to talk to a dying person. Both of us were agnostics, thus talking about God
was out of question.
Uncle continued, “It is following all those
‘good habits’ like religion, civilization, culture, all that stuff. And I am
not even mentioning honesty, dutifulness etc. etc.”
I could not figure out why uncle wanted to talk
about these subjects. So I stayed quiet. Perhaps there were some disagreements
with the children, which caused this irritation.
Uncle continued, “Take this hospital—all the
trash heaps around it, the chaotic administration, the petty stealing, the cruelty—you will see if you stayed here awhile. Do you
know the main reason behind all this?”
I realized the question was rhetoric, so kept
quiet. Perhaps uncle indirectly wanted to lecture his wife and children.
Uncle continued talking, “There is a popular phrase nowadays ‘work culture’. Apparently we’ve
lost our work culture! When did we ever have it? We worked because the masters
held a whip over our heads. Now there is no whip, so there is no work. Another
thing we had in old days-- personal good habits, something that men learned
from their elders in patriarchal families. You are a communist. Perhaps you do
not agree with this.”
“No, not at all. Please continue.” I
“I call them stupid because nobody learns these
things anymore. If one does learn, he will have to suffer at the hands of the
others. If in a joint family one person keeps the bathroom clean, he will end
up cleaning the bathroom after everyone else. Because he has
the good habits. These people with good habits always suffer more than
the ones with bad habits.”
After listening to him thus far, the three
children left the room. I clearly saw the younger girl make a face before
leaving. So my guess about a family disagreement was correct after all.
I was the only listener left. But I tried to
restrain him, “Uncle, enough. Don’t talk anymore. It is tiring you.”
But till then I had not seen any overt sign of
impending death or any sign of fear in my uncle. I knew he was a proud man, but
I did not know how long he could put up the façade of his pride. So, I was
surprised to see him totally ignore the matter of dying. At that moment, I
needed more consolation than he did. And the sensitive man understood that too.
Uncle answered me, “Gopal, not talking is not
going to increase my longevity. I know very well that my time is over. Perhaps
two weeks to two months at the most. So, let me have my say. I have not seen
you or talked with you for such a long time.”
Suddenly my heart constricted. “Are you scared
My uncle looked in my eyes for a moment then
Something was feeling stuck in my throat. I had
really loved this man.
Looking away, uncle said, “I don’t know. Not
exactly fear. You know me…”
I could not understand what he tried to say. At
last uncle said, “Listen, the reason I wanted you here” then
he suddenly changed topic, “—You know the biggest
tragedy in my life? All my life, wherever I’ve been, all the people I met and
worked and lived with—everywhere, at all times, I could detect every single
lie, selfishness, scam, smallness and deception. I can’t tell you how much I
have suffered for pointing out these flaws. It is like an x-ray machine in my
head that can accurately picture everything inside everyone else’s head.
Earlier I used to be proud of my perception. But later I wanted to be rid of
it. Even visited psychiatrists. But to no avail. It is
like a curse I am carrying in me all my life.”
Uncle stopped. I asked, “Why did you call me,
“Yes, I better tell you now. Later, there may
not be time.”
Right at that moment Ramola aunt entered the
room. Perhaps she was talking to the doctors or nurses outside. I touched her
feet also. She said, “Oh, you Gopal! When did you arrive?”
True to her nature, aunt started telling me all
the mundane details of her life. Uncle’s face was showing the impatience and
irritation. Without looking at his wife, he said, “I have some important
matters to discuss with Gopal. Please leave us alone.”
Aunt quietly left the room. Perhaps
Uncle took out a thick envelope from the bag
near his bed. “Keep this safely with you.” I did.
Looking out of the window, he said, “There is an
address on the envelope. You will go there tomorrow. Whatever next you have to
do is written in the letter inside. If something else comes up, do the best you
can. I am leaving it all to you.” The tired, sad patient then turned his face
away. I was a little surprised. The
whole event appeared rather dramatic to me. But uncle was not talking anymore
and the visiting hours were almost over. I got up and said, “Okay, uncle. I
better get going then.”
Uncle murmured something I couldn’t catch.
After returning home, I took the envelope out.
It was addressed to a Niti Basu in Krishnanagar. Why did uncle have to make it
such a secret? All kinds of doubts were crowding in my head but none had any
Next day, after lunch, I took a train from
Sealda to Krishnanagar. By the time I took a rickshaw from the station and
reached the correct address, I was near bursting with curiosity. An elderly man
pointed the door. “Yes, that is the house.”
I sounded the knocker.
A young lad of about fifteen opened the door. “Who
do you want?”
“Does a Niti Basu live here?”
“Yes. My mom.”
“Can you call her?”
But there was no need. A middle-aged lady of
about forty-five came to the door.
“Who is it, Shobhan? You?”
By then I had recognized her. She was Ramola
aunt’s younger sister Renu. Renu and I were of same age. I didn’t know her
proper name was Niti.
“I am Gopal, Renu.”
Renu squinted at me for a while. “If you can
“I am Vishnu Mitra’s nephew, Gopal. Don’t you
Renu suddenly remembered. “Go-pa-l!
Oh goodness, after so many years...”
Then suddenly she turned pale. “But why are you
here? I mean…how did you…”
Afterwards, half an hour later, sitting in her
room, I opened the envelope with her. There were numerous deeds, policies and
certificates. Proofs of Vishnu uncle’s savings from his salary
from the foundry.
But Renu wasn’t seeing the papers. “Will he
I tried to keep myself natural
as much as possible. I was also
reluctant to say the truth to her. I said, “Oh no. Nothing to
worry. After fifty, everyone gets a few diseases.”
But Renu wasn’t listening. “Can I see him once? The kid?”
The papers showed almost three lakh rupees in
savings. Neatly itemized. Renu would have no problem
cashing it. To distract her I said, “I am ready to wait for twenty years for
such a fortune, but I am a bit curious, if you don’t mind…”
“Oh, there is nothing exciting about it. You
know my sister. She made Vishnu’s life a living hell. I couldn’t stand to see
such a great man suffer this way… Also I got a good job here, so…”
That is why she had disappeared from home
seventeen years ago. She had just left a short note. Vishnu uncle started his
new family here in Krishnanagar. I had earlier heard a rumor about him joining
some Sadhu’s Ashram. This was the real reason.
At Renu’s request, I had to stay the night
there. She also made me agree to another request. I had to bring her to the
hospital. We decided to go before visiting hours. Uncle had said, “Do whatever
you feel the best.” But I was uncomfortable. The man who fought all his life
against lying and cheating had to do this to his family?
Next morning Renu and I reached the hospital
around ten in the morning. It was crowded in the ward, with people running
busily in all directions. Elbowing through the crowd, I reached Vishnu uncle’s
bed. Someone else was lying there. I asked a nurse, “Where is the patient in
The nurse curtly said, “He is dead. There in the
small room next door.” She strode busily away!
The old man in the next bed said, “Here. Let me
tell you. See that kid in the bed behind the pillar? He is suffering from
thallassemia. His poor father got him a pint of blood with great difficulty. At
night it was stolen. You know how they do it? They take out half of the blood
from the bottle and mix saline. That blood is then sold outside in the black.
Vishnu had suspected earlier. Last night he tried to catch him red handed. I
had advised against it, but he did not listen to me. The man hit him hard . He fell down. That was the end.”
I peeked in the room next door. A body laid on
the floor, covered with a white sheet. I didn’t realize when Renu came to stand
next to me. Suddenly she trembled so badly that I had to hold her from falling
It is foolish to draw a man in straight lines.